The past is a painful place for Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas. With voice strained and a steely look betraying a man whose thoughts have traveled back in time, the congressman recalled the day that changed his life. “We don’t talk about it much,” Brady said. “Mainly because it’s taken us this long to be able to talk about it.”
It has been 45 years since Brady, then a 12-year-old living in South Dakota, found out that his father had been murdered. William Brady, an attorney, was trying a case in a Rapid City courtroom when he was shot and killed. His wife was left to raise their five children. Now William Brady’s son is a U.S. congressman with children of his own, but it’s apparent that time has not healed all wounds.
“It continues to be a pretty emotional issue in our family,” Brady said.
That’s why the renewed push in Washington for stricter gun laws in the wake of another mass shooting is so difficult for Brady to discuss. When asked about it, he sat silently for a moment. Brady the Republican lawmaker did not want to discuss his father’s death in the context of public policy. But Brady the family man—indeed, Brady the son—struggled to separate personal tragedy from political ideology when explaining his opposition to President Obama’s gun-control agenda.
“I can’t imagine what those parents felt, losing children at Sandy Hook,” Brady said slowly, his voice trembling. “But I know what it feels like to lose a parent. So I don’t need a lecture from the president—or anyone else—on the impact of gun violence on families.”
He’s been here before—after Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Tucson. The pattern is familiar: mass shootings followed by political outrage followed by congressional inaction. This time the sequence has intensified, with the president publicly endorsing a slate of gun-control measures and demanding that Congress vote on them, saying the victims deserve nothing less.
Conservatives, distrustful both of the president and an ever-expanding federal government, have shuddered at the idea of adding new gun laws to the books. They will oppose the president’s plan to reduce gun violence. And their opposition will be branded by Democrats as the latest poke in America’s eye by the unfeeling Republican Party.
Brady has an uncommon perspective on the debate because unlike most lawmakers, he’s been on both sides of it. Brady defied the gun lobby once, and it nearly cost him his congressional career before it ever started.
In 1995, Brady was one of two Republicans in the Texas Legislature to vote against a bill allowing citizens to carry concealed firearms. “I couldn’t look Mom in the eye and vote for this,” he told the Houston Chronicle after the bill passed. At least no one could accuse him of political expediency. One year later Brady launched his maiden congressional campaign, which saw his lonely antigun vote skewered by an ultraconservative primary opponent. Brady narrowly won that race, but witnessed firsthand the ferocity with which anything gun-related could be politicized.
Having been easily reelected eight times since, Brady now says he regrets the way he voted in 1995—but not because it nearly cost him a seat in Congress.
“Because of the way Dad was killed, I was initially skeptical of concealed-carry legislation,” Brady explained. “But I’ve been remarkably impressed with how well concealed-carry has worked in Texas. It has worked better than its strongest supporters believed it would. And now, watching how concealed-carry and respect for guns creates a safer environment in Texas versus Washington, D.C. ... I’m convinced that our state has gotten it right.”
So if he could go back in time, would Brady vote differently on concealed-carry?
“Yeah, I would,” he answered firmly.
But Brady’s evolution on gun control has more to do with Washington than Texas. Like many of his fellow conservatives, Brady sees the federal government growing in size and scope, and he fears that individual freedoms are dwindling. “As I’ve watched Washington’s approach on most issues, and I’ve seen this growth of government sort of intruding on every part of our lives, I’ve just become more convinced that protecting those freedoms—including the Second Amendment—are more important than ever,” he said.
Outside of his vote against concealed-carry, Brady has been reliably pro-gun throughout his career. But that doesn’t mean he’s opposed to any new laws. He said he would support legislation outlawing “straw purchasing,” the act of obtaining weapons for those who cannot legally make the purchase themselves, and would consider legislation on interstate trafficking. He wants to have a discussion about mental health, too.
But in the end, he objects to Obama’s gun-control agenda for one reason: “His proposals don’t make us safer,” Brady said.
This article appears in the Feb. 26, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as The Evolution Of Rep. Kevin Brady.